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Rice University buzzes with discovery of new Houston-area insect

Rice University buzzes with discovery of new Houston-area insect

Valhalla wasp houston
Behold the valhalla wasp. Image courtesy of Rice University

One thing Houston isn’t lacking is bugs, but just our luck: a new species of insect has been discovered by biologists at Rice University.

Discovering a new life form entitles an entity to naming rights, thus this new insect — a nearly microscopic wasp — is dubbed Neuroterus (noo-ROH’-teh-rus) valhalla by Rice’s researchers. (If the “Valhalla” name rings a bell, that’s the legendary Rice pub.)

Graduate student Pedro Brandão-Dias, lead author of the paper on the species, first collected N. valhalla from the branches of a massive live oak tree near the campus bar in spring 2018. Years of research and study finally led to official discovery and naming this year. 

Barely a millimeter long and spending 11 months of the year in a “crypt,” the valhalla wasp and other gall wasps, as they are known, trick their host tree into feeding and sheltering their young, Rice reports.

Fittingly, these wasps lay a biochemical cocktail along with their eggs (a Valhalla move, indeed). These chemicals coax the tree to form a crypt, or gall, around the egg. The gall shelters the egg and feeds larvae that hatch from it, Rice research adds. “Once they emerge, they only live three or four days,” Brandão said of the tiny insects in a statement. “They don’t eat. Their only purpose is to mate and lay eggs.”

More research is needed to determine how the February 2021 freeze affected these insects, and if global climate change will affect them further.

For now, Houston now has a new bug, one with memorable nomenclature. “It would have been a missed opportunity to not call it something related to Rice or Valhalla,” said Brandão.